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Storm Watch

After his successful response to a massive snow storm helped burnish Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy for Chicago mayor, the local press is trying to find ‘Bad Rahm’ hidden inside the new, well-mannered version

Rachel Shteir
February 10, 2011
Rahm Emanuel helping shovel snow last week, in a photo released by his campaign.(Chicago for Rahm)
Rahm Emanuel helping shovel snow last week, in a photo released by his campaign.(Chicago for Rahm)

To view all articles in this series about Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign, click here.

The first week of early voting in Chicago was also the first week since December that Rahm Emanuel campaigned without the residency debate hanging over his head, after the Illinois Supreme Court validated his status on January 27. It was also Snowmageddon—the week that the city staggered under 20 inches of snow, which stranded 900 unhappy motorists on Lake Shore Drive.

Some journalists compared Emanuel’s clever and successful handling of the storm to that of Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who heroically dug his city out a few months ago. But I wonder if Snowmageddon was a game changer, as political people like to say, in a more profound way, too: Maybe the mayoral hopeful’s encounter with Bad Weather was like that of King Lear on the heath, where the king comes to understand his own puniness and mistakes by confronting the elements: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”

Of course it would be ridiculous to conclude that Snowmageddon transformed Emanuel from his fish-sending, swearing, former bad-boy self into a sober, reflective leader. But this was also the week when Good Rahm announced himself.

Good Rahm had made fleeting appearances before the storm, sure. At the residency hearings, for example, he sat for 11 hours of interrogation without uttering a single cuss word. In a January 30 feature in Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote that Emanuel’s stoicism showed “that the macher (Yiddish for big shot) didn’t have everything wired.” (Alter grew up in Chicago, and his book The Promise reported a line that is classic in the annals of pre-Snowmageddon Rahm: “Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say,” he supposedly told a staffer.)

Emanuel’s last pre-Snowmageddon campaign event was held in a two-story warehouse in an industrial wasteland on the south side—the soon-to-be Chicago headquarters of Growing Power, a national organization devoted to producing organic food locally. A day after he waxed poetic about bicycles and greening the city, Emanuel delivered a summa on “ending food deserts” and talked passionately to Erika Allen, Growing Power’s Chicago director and the daughter of the MacArthur-genius-grant-winning founder Will Allen, about composting and worms. In another room, where a group of young girls were learning about beekeeping, he hugged a woman he met at the 95th Street L stop. “The warmest place in America is at an L stop,” he said.

But in front of the cameras, the TV anchors poked at Good Rahm in the hopes that Bad Rahm would appear.

Could he comment on candidate Carol Mosley Braun’s most recent public gaffe, in which she called another candidate a crackhead (and which made her more like Emanuel than the man who has recently been campaigning for Mayor of Chicago)?

Rahm said: “I am here to attack the problems of the city of Chicago, not the other candidates.”

Another question returned to Emanuel’s tax cuts, which Gery Chico, another candidate, in the first attack ad of the campaign, derides as the “Rahm Tax.”

Emanuel, who has promised to cut taxes for working families by taxing luxury services, has thus far declined to provide a complete list of items that he will levy, tossing off suggestions that conjure fat cats: private jets, tanning beds, exclusive clubs, and limos. In the warehouse, Emanuel conceded that he’d work on his list together with the legislature. (Post-Snowmageddon, he added Botox.)

Finally, the TV anchors asked about the charge that Rahm’s campaign was bullying Chico, whose attack ad said the “Rahm Tax” would also hit bowling alleys and barber shops. (Emanuel has denied this.)

Good Rahm declined to answer, although communications director Ben LaBolt has said that anyone harassing Chico doesn’t work for the campaign.

Later that evening, as the snow began to drown the city, I sat on my couch and watched The Good Wife, the CBS series set in Chicago, starring Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, the titular wife. Wendy Scott Carr, the black candidate running for mayor against Alicia’s husband, Peter, suspects him of producing a racist poster smearing her daughter. It turns out that these posters are being produced not by Peter’s campaign but by his PAC. “I can’t control them,” says Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), Peter’s chief of staff—the Rahm character—adding that if Peter cuts ties with the PAC, the campaign will go bankrupt. But by the end of the episode, Peter does exactly that.

Moral of the episode: It’s easier to play Good Candidate when you’ve got others to play Bad.

Post-Snowmageddon, the campaign promoted Good Rahm, releasing pictures of him pushing a Chicago Police Department SUV out of a snowbank, which caused some reporters to grumble that the pictures were staged, since no one was invited to witness the spectacle in person.

Since Snowmageddon, Good Rahm has continued to promote his vision of Chicago as a green, clean, bike-riding, crime-free, gay-friendly, wind-powered, gender diverse, violence-free, charter-school-friendly city.

Even a dis from the New York Times couldn’t bring back Bad Rahm. On Thursday morning, at the first campaign event after the storm, at a homeless shelter on an unplowed street in the dilapidated Uptown neighborhood, a TV anchor asked Emanuel about the city’s handling of the closing of Lake Shore Drive. Emanuel said mildly that a review would be a good idea.

The anchor brought out his biggest artillery. “The New York Times headline said the city couldn’t handle it,” he said.

Emanuel rolled his eyes and expressed a sentiment he repeated more forcefully that evening to the crowd of well-dressed professionals at a fundraiser held at the Thomas McCormick Gallery in the West Loop: “Typical. Yeah, we have thumbs here, too.”

By Friday, Rahm had been endorsed by several unions, the Sierra Club, and the two major papers. But other unions took offense at statements he released in which he says he will shun patronage in city hiring.

In front of a Thomas McCormick Gallery audience, some of whom had paid $1,000 to eat shrimp and drink Merlot, the well-behaved mayoral hopeful marveled that the Chicago police department would have bought cars with two-wheel drive in the first place. Then, for one brief moment, Bad Rahm made his first appearance of the week.

“This is Chicago,” he said, gesturing at the window, where outside, the curb was piled high with snow. “Criminals have four-wheel drive.”


Next week: Emanuel will attend his first (and the first in Chicago) event to be sponsored by a coalition of gay-rights groups, and on the same night appear in a debate sponsored by the Chicago Defender, the historical black weekly. Meanwhile, Gery Chico has topped Carol Moseley Braun as number 2 in the race. Will Rahm will be able to grab the 50 percent of votes necessary to avoid a run-off?

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

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